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How is the Mara Elephant Project protecting elephants in Kenya?

Nicola Shepherd By Nicola Shepherd
21 Jun 2021
Kenya - MEP - Helicopter elephant conservation.jpg

The Mara Elephant Project, situated in the world-renowned Maasai Mara Game reserve in southern Kenya, is a charity very close to my heart. I highly recommend supporting them, particularly if you are taking a safari to Kenya yourself.

The Maasai Mara is world-renowned as one of the finest safari destinations in East Africa and is home to one of the greatest wildlife phenomena on the African continent – the wildebeest migration. Two million animals migrate between Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya in search of water and the short grass plains for sweeter grazing.

The Mara also has a thriving and well-protected elephant population, thanks to the Mara Elephant Project (MEP), which works hard to ensure that elephants here are protected from the varied pressures they are subject to. Managed by a handful of some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable individuals in Kenya, this is the perfect charity to support when travelling on safari to the Maasai Mara.

 


How can you witness the MEP's work in person?

One can stay at the wonderful Richard’s Camp, a tented camp which is home to one of the trustees of MEP and a long-standing friend of mine. 

Whilst you stay at Richard's Camp (with prior approval and sufficient notice) you have the opportunity to visit the MEP Visitor Centre to get a glimpse into the daily life of these elephant protectors. Take a tour of the HQ, see the various methods they use to combat poaching and learn about their projects and daily work from their researchers and rangers. Your donation will be put to wonderful use helping them to run their very efficient organisation and you will be able to see first-hand during your visit how every penny is put to the best possible use. 

 


On the way back to the camp from the HQ, your guide may also be able to use their tracking devices to help you spot an MEP-collared elephant. You will hear about this particular elephant's actions and travel and how MEP is protecting them from conflict.

You don't have to visit to help (though I do recommend it!), but they will accept any amount of donation in support of their work. You can help elephants in the Masai Mara at any time by making a donation as part of your regular charitable giving. Their daily running costs are high and every amount helps them to continue their efforts:

  • $64,000 would provide a new vehicle fitted with the equipment needed by the rapid response unit so they can intervene in cases of wildlife conflict rapidly to save more lives.
  • $26,000 is the cost to protect a single collared elephant over the lifespan of the collar, which covers the collar itself, the vet and rangers to fit the collar and the monitoring, data collection and interventions.
  • $7,200 is the cost to monitor and collect data on a pre-collared elephant for one year.
  • $6,000 will support the essential tactical and medical training for ten rangers (this must be refreshed regularly).
  • $3,000 would cover the cost of running intelligence operations for a month. These are critical to the arrest of poachers and all involved in the chain of ivory poaching.
  • $2,000 is the cost of fuelling and maintaining a patrol vehicle each month.

 


Why are elephants in danger in the Maasai Mara?

The Maasai Mara National Reserve (MMNR) is relatively small at only 1,510 km2. The Conservancies with mixed wildlife and livestock management make up another 1,400 km2. However the greater Maasai Mara ecosystem encompasses a further 4,000 km2. Outside of the MMNR, individual Maasai landowners have parcels of land, which range in sizes of approximately 20 to 200 acres.

The human population in this area is increasing rapidly, and that puts the land under severe threat from a mixture of land-use changes: expanding settlements, permanent buildings, crop-based agriculture, fenced plots, wildlife poaching and deforestation. Almost all of the traditional tribal land has been subdivided and title deeds given to individuals.

 


This fragmentation and associated fencing of the ecosystem is blocking key wildlife migration routes (corridors) and is rapidly accelerating human-wildlife conflict. Elephants who live or venture close to human settlements puts the herds at risk from conflict with humans protecting their food sources and family. There is also always the terrible risk of elephants being poached for their ivory.

How is the Mara Elephant Project protecting elephants?

Whilst Kenya is now managing to stabilise her elephant population (as opposed to other African countries where 86 elephant are being slaughtered daily by poachers), they have only achieved this due to the rigorous anti-poaching methods employed by private partnerships and conservancies across the country, such as the MEP, Borana and Lewa, Ol Jogi and others.

 


The overall approach of the MEP and their partners to elephant conservation is three-fold:

  • Anti-poaching activities – Mara Elephant Project has developed and successfully manages two rapid response units and six anti-poaching patrol units consisting of 31 total rangers that monitor both poaching and human-elephant conflict hot-spots and react to intelligence reports. These are boots-on-the-ground that can intervene to save elephants in real time.
  • Human-elephant conflict mitigation – working with local communities, the MEP helps them to protect their livelihoods through development projects. The rapid response units can also intervene in the case of any danger or if collared elephants stray too close to at-risk areas.
  • Collaring and research – tracking and monitoring elephants through GPS positioning to gain better understanding of wildlife corridors and protect elephant herds in real-time.

 


This has resulted in many successes since 2011, working alongside the Kenya Wildlife Service and other organisations to traverse great distances and cut across boundaries: 

  • Since 2011, MEP and KWS rangers have arrested 373 ivory and bushmeat poachers and other wildlife criminals such as ivory dealers and middlemen.
  • MEP has reduced the percentage of illegally killed elephants in the northern Mara. In real numbers, in 2012 there were 96 illegal elephant deaths, reduced to just 3 in 2019!
  • Over 1676.5kg of ivory have been seized.
  • There is a successful intelligence program that has directly led to many arrests.
  • In 2019, 231 snares were removed from the areas of operation covered and 82kg of bushmeat were confiscated.
  • The conflict mitigation helicopter flew for 192.5 hours in 2019 to save elephants and communities

 


  • Seven new elephants were collared and three elephants re-collared in 2019 to provide ongoing monitoring and protection. New elephants were selected in reaction to a slew of new conflicts caused by elephants reentering areas they have not visited for many years. MEP's rapid collaring to monitor them and intercept them in future has undoubtedly saved their lives.
  • MEP have focussed on reducing illegal logging to reduce habitat destruction, and in 2019 rangers confiscated 21,738 illegally logged posts, arrested 46 for illegal logging and charcoal production and deployed 14 new rangers to the Mau and Loita Foests which are high risk areas for elephant habitat destruction.

Why is collaring vital for elephant conservation?

Collar data is the single best indicator for identifying elephant density hotspots, defining corridors, and illustrating elephant movements to target audiences. It costs $26,000 to purchase a collar, carry out the collaring procedure and track the elephant to secure its future, where possible.

 


Currently, the Mara Elephant Project has 22 collared elephants which they monitor via Google Earth daily. The collared elephants in most cases represents a whole herd that may be at risk from human conflict if they venture too close to settlements, so in total over the security of over 600 elephants is being monitored.

MEP focuses on candidates that will gather useful spatial data for wildlife corridor research but also those at greater risk. Therefore elephants in border areas, areas of conflict or areas outside conservancies or national reserves are the best candidates for tracking, as well as elephants that have larger tusks which are more valuable for poachers. ‘Problem’ elephants that are known crop raiders are also identified across the dispersal area.

 


The data is then analysed daily to mitigate human-elephant conflict, inform ranger deployment and anti-poaching work, and promote trans-boundary cooperation within the wider ecosystem.

The interpretation of wildlife dispersal areas actually shows that wildlife is present permanently and seasonally on private unprotected land in Kenya. The northern section of the ecosystem provides crucial dispersal areas for large mammals.

 


These rolling hills and valleys are also home to the Maasai people, who similarly depend upon the rich grasslands for the survival of their domestic livestock and traditional way of life.

This is why the Mara Elephant Projects work is crucial to create safe wildlife corridors which in turn will lead to peaceful co habitation between humans and wildlife. This is the key to the survival of the species in the greater Maasai Mara ecosystem.

The MEP are funded entirely by generous donations and every amount, no matter how small, helps them to continue their vital work. However if you would like to fund a significant project for them in its entirety please do get in touch for more information about them, their current plans and their upcoming projects. You can also discover more about our charitable partners in The Explorations Company's Philanthropic Handbook, or, if you would just like to dream for now, you can do so at our Video Library.

 ** This blog was first published in January 2019 and significantly updated and reposted on 21st June 2021 **

Images kindly provided courtesy of the Mara Elephant Project and Richard's Camp

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